Celtics

Celtics

The Boston Celtics woke up in Dallas on Nov. 25 with a 10-10 record. A glance at the Eastern Conference standings found Boston already six games back of a Raptors team with an absurd .800 winning percentage, and the Milwaukee Bucks were right on Toronto’s heels.

It was suggested in more places than one that these Celtics, if they didn’t shake themselves from their early season doldrums, might be left scrapping for a middle seed in the East.

That, of course, was a bit premature. A starting lineup shuffle gave the Celtics a desperately-needed kick in the pants and Boston ripped off eight straight wins before Saturday’s seemingly inevitable loss in Detroit. And while the Celtics haven't shuffled from the fifth spot in the East that they occupied a month ago, Boston now finds itself a mere 3.5 games back of conference-leading Toronto.

All of which is a reminder that things can change quickly in the NBA. The Celtics still have a lot of work ahead to truly compete for a top spot, but with key conference games approaching against Milwaukee (Friday night) and Philadelphia (Christmas Day), Boston has a real chance to start making a move.

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This is no small development. In the aftermath of that loss in Dallas, FiveThirtyEight’s season projections pegged Boston at 50 wins and the fourth seed in the East. Both the Bucks and Raptors were projected to finish at least five games ahead of the Celtics. But Boston’s winning streak has made things a bit more interesting.

 

FiveThirtyEight still projects the Raptors as a 60-win team, but the Bucks (55) and Boston (54) are neck-and-neck with the same projected point differential per game (+6.4). Working in the favor of both Toronto and Milwaukee, they are projected with the two easiest remaining strengths of schedule (Boston has the ninth-easiest slate, per ESPN’s Basketball Power Index).

It feels premature to be stressing about seeding before Christmas, when many suggest the NBA season actually begins. And yet, with more than a third of the season in the rearview, it’s fair to at least assess the situation.

Should seeding matter to the Celtics? There’s a decent case to be made that it ought to, if for no other reason than the daunting possibility of trying to win at least one playoff series on the road in Toronto or Milwaukee. The Celtics’ passports are stamped with losses, having dropped 11 of their last 12 games in Toronto. Milwaukee, even before its sparkling new arena opened this season, is a tough place to play, as Boston found out during the postseason last year when the Bucks forced a seven-game first-round series by winning three times at home.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has routinely subscribed to the theory that he’d rather have his team healthy and playing its best basketball than push for better seeding. In the big picture, that’s absolutely the right strategy. That's why the Celtics shut down Al Horford recently with hopes of combating the patellofemoral pain syndrome that’s hindered him a bit at the start of the season.

Boston saw last year how Kyrie Irving’s knee soreness lingered until he was forced out of action in March. Stevens knows the Celtics’ best chance at success is having all their horses available in mid-April and beyond, and seeding might not matter if they don’t.

If seeding comes at the expense of getting Gordon Hayward back to a consistent All-Star-caliber contributor, or if the team has to endure some extra bumps to make sure Irving’s gas tank is full at season’s end, then that should absolutely be the priority.

The Raptors were seemingly threatening to run away with the East after opening their recent four-game trip out west with lopsided wins over the Warriors and Clippers. But Toronto lost consecutive games in Portland and Denver and is now 3-5 in its last eight games, keeping the Raptors closer to the pack.

Neither FiveThirtyEight nor BPI is particularly bullish on the Pacers or Sixers being able to push the Raptors/Bucks/Celtics triumvirate. Alas, Indiana has won seven straight and Philadelphia has feasted at home, keeping both in front of Boston at the moment.

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Just how much stock can we put into mid-December standings anyhow? If we roll back the clock to late December 2017, the Celtics, Raptors, and Cavaliers were all jumbled within 1.5 games of each other on Dec. 22. FiveThirtyEight’s projections, at that time, had the Raptors finishing atop the East at 58 wins with the Cavaliers (56) and Boston (54) behind them.

 

Sure enough, Toronto won 59 games to nab the top spot, Boston finished the projected four games back at 55 wins to earn the No. 2 seed, and Cleveland, downshifting like it often did in the LeBron James era, settled for the fourth seed.

Certainly the lack of homecourt didn’t hinder the Cavaliers and it sort of reaffirms that health and playing well are paramount to seeding. But the jockeying for position atop the East is going to be a major storyline by the time the All-Star break passes in February and it will be fascinating to see whether East leaders subscribe to that notion this year, or push hard for the benefits of homecourt advantage.

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